Flag Day

George Singleton Click to read more...

george-sAuthor of two novels (Novel and Work Shirts for Madmen), George Singleton is a prolific creator of hilarious and sorrowful short stories, which have been compiled in seven collections, most recently Calloustown (2015).  He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Hillsdale Award for Fiction awarded by the Fellowship of Southern Writers, an organization which inducted him in 2015.  He currently holds the John C. Cobb Endowed Chair in the Humanities and teaches at Wofford College.

My wife, Alicia, told me that she never knew that she could swim until six years into her first marriage.  We sat on a nice well-stained second-floor porch at a lake rental house, thirty miles from where we lived, overlooking a cove.  Down below us floated a dock, a pontoon boat, a metal canoe painted green, and across the water only one other house stood in view. I’d gotten the place free for the long weekend, as long as I set the place up for wi-fi and figured out how to get these people’s entertainment system to work.  My job was to type up and print out a step-by-step process so future vacationers could come to a lake house surrounded by Nature, then have no problem getting on-line, or watching endless movies on those Premium channels.  Normally I’d’ve said something about how I needed payment, that I didn’t need a four-day weekend at the lake, that unfortunately I couldn’t barter with Duke Power, Piedmont Gas, or whoever my mortgage lender happened to be this year.  But Alicia probably needed some time away.  She felt as though she might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and had walked off her last job two weeks earlier.

“Because my father moved around so much in the Army, I never got the chance to learn how to swim,” Alicia said.  “It seemed like every summer he got stationed in places without lakes or pools.”

We’d gotten in at noon and unpacked our bags in the master bedroom.  This place had four single beds downstairs, two queen sized-beds on the main floor, and then another two beds upstairs in a crow’s nest.  The owner of the lake house, Carnell Henderson–he’d hired me out to run some cable from his house to his wife’s new greenhouse, and while I was there he asked if I knew computers, and so on. I kind of lied.  I mean, I knew that I could figure things out, but it’s not like I have an associate’s degree in computer science or electronics.  Me, I had a regular bachelor’s degree in psychology, plus a grandfather and father who worked as electricians and taught me the trade. I told Carnell no problem.  He made a point to tell me this investment property of his normally pulled in fifteen hundred dollars.  I didn’t ask him if that meant nightly, long-weekendly, weekly, or monthly.  I didn’t care.  He sounded like a landlord more than anything else, and maybe I held bad memories of landlords back before my second marriage.

Psychology ended up being a perfect degree for my future job as an electrician.  I had no fear of mice or rats living deep in crawl spaces.

I poured some wine into Alicia’s glass–we’d brought two coolers filled with chicken wings, catfish, pork chops, hamburger meat, and veggie burgers should we finally decide to go healthy–and got up to get myself the bottle of Four Roses.  We had kale, and early first-harvest cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, and jalapenos from our own garden.  I’d gone by the Bi-Lo on the way out and gotten corn, charcoal briquets, and lighter fluid. I bought four different six-packs of fancy beer I’d never heard of. Listen, if we’d had this lake house for a month we’d’ve had enough food and booze, is what I’m saying.  We brought along pumpernickel, rye, sour dough, and French bread.  Edam, cheddar, and brie.  Three bags of Doritos.  French onion and bean dip. Salsa. Hummus. Alicia’s eight bottles of Merlot and Rosé. Two fifths of bourbon.

My second wife pulled her legs up and set them across mine.  She wore a green and white sundress adorned with monkeys all linked together hand-by-hand swinging, like that Barrel of Monkeys kids’ game.  I’m not sure where she got it.  This might sound mean, but I was glad we had all that food and didn’t need to go out to a local restaurant, if there were any nearby. Alicia looked like a regular woman worried about her appearance in many ways–she dyed her shortish hair and worked a treadmill most mornings before dawn–but sometimes she chose to clothe herself in get-ups she thought either chic, suave, or hipsterish that I didn’t see other women our age wear when I showed up to keep their houses from sparking on fire. I picked up a pair of binoculars left out on the table and looked out at someone doing figure 8s with a jet ski in the lake’s main channel.

“I didn’t even care about swimming.  I never thought about it!  And then Tony and I were at his family’s reunion down at Lake Poke.  I must’ve been a little drunk.  I told you all about his family history.  Anyway, he talked me into this canoe, it flipped over when he went to stand up, and I found out that I could swim.  All the way back to shore.  We split up about a month later. You think it had something to do with my realizing I could swim and all?”

I shrugged.  I wanted to say something about how her last boss was named Tony, too, and that maybe she subconsciously looked for trouble.  Alicia complained for a year that he put too much pressure on her.  She worked for an audiologist, pretending to be a nurse of sorts, as far as I could tell. Mostly she worked the front desk and tried to figure out Medicare.  Sometimes she sat patients down and made them respond when they heard a beep from this audiology machine.

“You were, like, twenty-eight?  You didn’t learn how to swim until you were twenty-eight?  Wow.  I never thought about it. Have we never been swimming?”

Part of the “pressure” she perceived from this doctor might’ve concerned his wanting her to always speak just above a whisper to everyone who walked into Hub City Audiology.  And then she felt obligated to talk everyone into buying the most expensive hearing aids.

“Yeah, I know.  After I had to swim out of Lake Poke and leave Tony, swimming became my favorite exercise for a couple years.”  Alicia re-crossed her legs over mine.  She raised her glass, then pointed it across the cove.  Just as she did, a dozen boys spilled out onto the porch, all wearing orange shirts.  By “boys” I mean frat brothers, and by “orange” I mean they must’ve gone to Texas, Tennessee, Clemson, or Syracuse.  I doubted that a fraternity would come spend the second week of June a thousand miles from their colleges, and Tennessee has a number of fine lakes.  I tried to think of other colleges with orange jerseys, but couldn’t.  I thought back to a number of gated community houses where I’d been hired out to do something as simple as changing a fuse, but couldn’t remember an orange motif in the family rooms.

I picked up the binoculars and looked across the cove.  After adjusting the cylinder and scanning our new neighbors, I noticed one guy looking back at me with a pair of his own binoculars.  He gave me the finger.  I set the binoculars down and didn’t say anything to Alicia.  She didn’t need more possible strife, what with her pressuring audiologist ex-boss and those horrific flashbacks that involved a capsized canoe.

Luckily Alicia and I didn’t say anything first, once those guys came out.  One of them said, in what I would bet a normal conversational tone, “Hey, let’s make some bets about that pontoon boat.”  He didn’t scream it out.  What with Alicia’s background in audiology, and this elective geography course I took in college that let me understand the tricky echoes that can occur in valleys, I put my index finger up to my mouth and whispered, “We can eavesdrop.  We need to speak quietly.”

She said, “Oh, I got that down,” and smiled.

From across the water one of the college boys said, “Hey, man, someone put on some music.”  Then for five minutes it sounded like background noise, like a group of a dozen people all talking at once.  I barely said to Alicia, “I hope they’re not up all night.”

She said, “I bet I didn’t dogpaddle but ten feet, and then went straight into the standard Australian crawl.  Maybe in the morning we can go out there–take out the pontoon, anchor it, and swim around.”

I picked up the binoculars and looked to the side of the house across the cove.  Sure enough: Breaker box right there in plain view, eye level. I thought, Do not do anything that would make Alicia look later for a third husband.

*
I poured easy-light charcoal into the normal black smoker on the far end of the porch.  Alicia said she would wait until the coals were burned down before she decided what she wanted on the first day of our vacation.  I’d agreed to take the pontoon out in the morning, but then I wanted to fix Carnell Henderson’s problems, then re-check everything on both Sunday and Monday before we went home where, I assumed, Alicia would begin looking for a new job and I’d catch grief from my regular customers–I catered to a wealthier clientele who would not admit that they had mice chewing wires to the HVAC unit’s fan circuit board, or they bought elaborate outside ceiling fans for their verandas before understanding that they didn’t run on batteries. Or they forgot how to run their own dryers, blamed me, and then I had to come over and close the door to the Samsung before pushing the Start button.  House call.  Five minutes. Eighty bucks.

“I’m not even hungry now,” Alicia said.  “I feel like I’m not even going to get hungry for some reason.  Hey, did we bring any aspirin?”

The fraternity boys started playing Old School disco loudly, bands that I recognized even though they were before my time: Earth, Wind, and Fire.  The Commodores and Mother’s Finest.   The Ohio Players. I got out the binoculars again to make sure they weren’t in their fifties, or maybe their parents had shown up for the evening.  The bass reverberated across the water and made the foundation of Carnell’s house throb.  I said, “Fuck.”

“You didn’t bring the aspirin?  I put it out on the table before we packed,” Alicia said.
I lit the grill and, in my mind, thought I foresaw what I’d be doing later in the middle of the night.  I said, “I got it.  It’s on the kitchen counter inside.”

“Come here, Ted,” Alicia said.  She tapped the chair beside her.  “Let’s just sit down here and do some drinking.”  She’d gotten up and relieved the freezer from its ice bin, and poured it into a cooler Carnell kept on the deck.  “You’re the smart one here.  Tell me what I should do.”

Even though Tony might’ve demanded too much of my wife, he didn’t harass her in any way.  Alicia and I weren’t the litigation-type of people anyway.  We met two years after both of our divorces–mine had to do with an ex-wife who cheated on me–and we married two years later.  In six months we’d celebrate our tenth year together, our eighth married.  At parties people liked to hear how we met: She had moved to an upscale apartment complex, I’d gotten hired to install lights around the pool, and we flirted with one another.

The next day Alicia called her landlord and said that her dining room lights no longer worked, could he please call up the electrician who had been there the day earlier. She had tripped the breaker on purpose.  A day later, Alicia put on rubber gloves and tennis shoes, then shoved a paperclip in one of her outlets, which caused a gigantic scorch mark.  She called the landlord.  Alicia and I went out to a fondue restaurant the next night.

I said, “Baby doll, we don’t really need the money.  You do what you want to do.” This wasn’t all that true, but it seemed like the right thing to say after two tumblers of bourbon and Coke.  I said, “You want to go back to school and take some classes?  Do that.  You want to come out with me and help out every day?  That’s fine.”

Alicia already had a college degree, too.  She had majored in early childhood education, spent three years teaching second grade at a public education elementary school, said Screw this, and decided to never have children.  She told me that at one point with Tony the first husband she took the pill, had an IUD, used a diaphragm, and shoved a sponge up there.  By the time I came around she was down to the pill and a diaphragm.

“I need a job, Ted,” she said.  “Those three years I have in the state retirement system?  It’s not even getting interest, what with the account being inactive.  If you died, I don’t know what I’d do.”

I didn’t say, If we had a couple kids maybe they could take over All Out Electric.  I said, “I got a life insurance policy.  We’ve got money saved up.  The house will be paid for in fifteen years.  I ain’t going to die.”

The boys across the way dumped out a bucket of golf balls onto the ground.  When their CD was between tracks I made out one of them saying, “Whoever hits the pontoon, everyone else has to do a shot.  Hit the canoe?  Two shots.”  I got out the binoculars and looked over there.  It appeared as if they dumped out nothing but brand new Titleist Pro V1s.  Those things cost four bucks apiece.

“These are really good binoculars,” I said to Alicia.  “They’re going to play a drinking game that involves our pontoon and canoe.  Or Carnell Henderson’s.”

She said, “I can tell you what got me depressed,” as if we had been talking about it for a solid month.  I’ll admit that at times I get consumed with work, but I felt sure that Alicia had not admitted any form of depression until this point.

I said, “What?” but held the binoculars back up and watched the first guy swing a nice Ping pitching wedge.  He fell short by a good forty yards.  I pulled the binoculars down, then swung the strap around my neck and let it rest on my lap.  I said, “Depression about the job?”

Alicia poured out the rest of the first bottle.  She said, “This is a weird story.  You have that degree in psychology.  Tell me if this makes sense.  It’s the only thing I can think of, as far as a cause.”

“I don’t have any advanced degrees, honey, you know that.  It wouldn’t be right for me to offer up any kind of diagnosis.  Or prognosis.  Which is the right word?  I never remember.”

Another guy swung hard, topped the ball, and it dribbled into ankle-deep water.  My wife said, “This woman came into the office about a month ago.  Tiny woman, maybe four-eleven.  You could tell she used to be taller, and regal.  She had a pretty bad hunched back, you know.  I know for a fact that she was eighty-eight years old, because I typed in her information.”

I said, “I’m listening.”  I kept eye contact with Alicia, but got up, dipped my cup in the ice chest, and got more bourbon.  I hadn’t come close to finishing even half of half a fifth, but bourbon’s a little more potent than merlot.  Across the cove, the CD skipped, and then someone turned it off.  I heard one of those boys say, “Let’s make it a little more interesting.”

Alicia stared over that way, but she had a look on her face similar to a farm animal lost in thought.  “Her name was Ms. Young.  Deaf as a railroad spike.  I mean, she could hear if you yelled at her, but that was it.”

I wanted to ask if the woman drove herself to Hub City Audiology, but didn’t.  Sometimes Alicia complained that Tony Husband #1 interrupted.  And so did Tony Boss the Last.  Also, I wanted to say how funny it is for people with the last name Young to get so old.

“She came in right at the end of the day.  Dr. McKinney had gone off somewhere and hadn’t returned.  I kind of think he forgot. I had to call him up and remind him, and he started cussing, you know.”

I wanted to say, At one of those schools for the deaf, I guess teachers could get away with cussing all they wanted.  I said, “He probably went out to play golf.”

“So Ms. Young took a seat in the waiting room and I yelled out at her that the doctor was with a patient, that he was running behind, and all those other lies I had to tell when things weren’t going smoothly.  When things weren’t going professionally.”

I said, “I only met him at those Christmas parties, but I thought right away that he had a drinking problem.  I mean, I can’t talk,” I said, raising my glass.  “But I’m not in charge of bringing sound into people’s lives. Just light.  I guess I’m an eye doctor’s worst enemy.”

“I don’t know,” Alicia said.  “I never smelled booze on his breath.  At least not at work.”

My cell phone vibrated a little in my pocket.  I’d gotten a text message.  I said, “Hold on one second,” to Alicia and pulled it out.  Carnell Henderson had sent me a message that read, “I forgot.  Flag Day coming up.  Please put flag out on pole. In upstairs closet, on shelf.”

I texted back, “Okay.”  To Alicia I said, “Hell, I didn’t even know why we had a long weekend.”

She said, “And there aren’t great drugs in the audiology field, unless someone stabs your eardrum with an ice pick, which happens more than you’d think possible.”

*
There were no members of the golf team in this particular fraternity.  One of them got so frustrated he pulled out an oversized driver and hit a duck hook that bounced below our deck.  I got out the binoculars to see if the guy who gave me the finger earlier might be looking, but all those boys simply turned around and feigned staring at their lake house, as if nothing happened, as if I witnessed a golf ball dropping from the sky.

I said, “We should’ve brought some marshmallows.  Hotdogs and marshmallows.”

Alicia got up, walked into the kitchen, and came back with four pork chops, but she didn’t put them on the grill, just set them down on a table nearby.  She said, “I said, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ because I couldn’t pretend that she wasn’t sitting on the other side of the window, not eight feet away.  I yelled out, ‘Tell me about yourself, Ms. Young!’ and thought I would get back something how she taught school for forty years. Maybe how she taught chorus or band.”

My phone vibrated again.  I looked down to see that Carnell Henderson texted me, “There’s a yellow Don’t Tread on Me flag, too.  Put that below the other flag.”

I looked at my wife and wanted to tell her about how we needed to trash this place, but she said, “They had one of those wildlife cameras.  You know, Ms. Young and her husband had one of those motion sensor cameras down toward the end of their driveway, pointed to the house.  In case anyone broke in, they could go look at the video or whatever and give it to the police.”

It might’ve been ninety-five degrees.  I got up and checked the top of the ice chest to make sure it felt secured.  I looked across the cove and watched the fraternity boys give up on their Hit the Pontoon game.  Presently George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic would blast out of the house, that song about how people should get off their asses and jam.  I said, “I’ve been meaning to get one of those cameras for us.  I want to train it on the back of my truck, because in time someone’s going to try to steal my tools and sell them at the flea market.”

Alicia shook her head.  “This is bad,” she said.  “This will kill you.  Wait–that’s a bad way to put it, what with what I’m about to say.  This will explain my depression.”

Again, I didn’t say, “I didn’t know you’d been depressed,” for if indeed she’d mentioned it a number of times, this would only make it worse, I figured. I looked over at the pork chops and counted eight flies. I said, “Are you hungry?”

“Ms. Young’s husband got murdered two years ago.  She happened to be visiting her sister in the hospital up in Asheville.  She told me that she understood how she should feel lucky about it, but in most ways she felt guilty.”

I said, “Was he shot?”  I said, “Was it at night, and he was shot in bed?”

My wife held up her left palm. “I stood up from my station at Hub City Audiology so I could hear Ms. Young better.  She said the cops got the camera and checked things out.  Listen, to this.  Ted.  It went like this. Ted, are you listening to me?”

I said, “I’m looking right at you, honey.”

She said, “A deer showed up.  Then a possum.  Then one of the neighborhood dogs.  Then a raccoon.  Then that dog again.  I might be getting some of this out of order.  I know that she said to me ‘neighbor’s dog’ quite a few times.  A coyote showed up once or twice, then a man they didn’t know.  A cat showed up a couple times.  A fox.  The Youngs lived out in the country, way out there. The Duke Power meter reader.  Then that first man came again, and hung out for quite a while in the middle of the night.  He came back the very next night.  Then the camera showed Ms. Young coming back home. And then the sheriff’s deputy, and a coroner a little while later.  Like that. And then a hearse taking Mr. Young off the property.”

I thought, Goddamn.  I thought, None of us are safe.  “It was that guy?”

“That man ended up killing Ms. Young’s husband, then stealing a wallet, all the silver, a bunch of shit.  They haven’t caught him yet.”

I said, “Did the woman come home to find her husband dead in bed?”

“This is the saddest part.  She told me that when one of them was out of the house they had a Dr. Pepper rule.  They called each other at 10, 2, and 4, no matter what.  When Mr. Young didn’t answer the phone at ten in the morning, and then again at two in the afternoon, she drove back down from Asheville.  And that’s what she came home to.”  My wife got up and walked toward the grill.  She said, “We waited too long.”

The fraternity brothers came back outside armed with golf clubs.  They stood in a line and counted down before all of them swung at the same time.  One of them actually hit the pontoon, and the ball dinged off into the water.  I got out the binoculars and watched as they all did shots from a bottle of Rebel Yell.  I said, “We waited too long for what, Alicia?  Alicia.  What do you mean?”

“You need to put more charcoal on.  Or I could just go inside and put these things in the oven.  I could bake these pork chops.”

I sat there staring across the cove at young men dancing around, whooping, raising bottles and/or irons.  I envisioned this Ms. Young woman sitting there in Hub City Audiology, telling her story to a complete stranger receptionist.  I said, “Goddamn.  Why didn’t you tell me this story right after it happened?  No wonder you quit.  Did these kinds of stories happen a bunch?”

I caught myself looking at the soffit and facia of Carnell Henderson’s lakehouse to see if he’d rightly installed motion sensor cameras.  I looked off into the surrounding trees. “Not a bunch.  But there are stories like that everywhere, every day.”

I got up and poured more coals on top of what hadn’t quite burned out.  From across the water I heard another golf ball hit the pontoon, then another onslaught of battle cries.  I said, “I better go find those flags.  Now you got me paranoid that we’re being watched by a wildlife camera.”

At seven o’clock the drinking game stopped and the music came on full-blast.  It went from those Seventies disco tunes to Lynyrd Skynyrd, with the boys yelling out “Go Fuck, Alabama” during the chorus of that one song, which made me think that perhaps these scholars did hail from Tennessee.  I don’t want to say that Alicia and I had turned into the kind of people who eat supper at five and fall asleep by dark, but maybe we were.  At least after drinking way too much bourbon and wine, we were.  When we got back home and returned to normal routines, I felt sure that we’d eat during the national news, go to bed during the local news, maybe watch re-runs in between.

So Alicia put meat on the grill and I walked upstairs to gather the flags.  I know that I shouldn’t make assumptions about wealthy lakehouse-owning people, but I walked into the upper-level bedroom to find the two single beds, a lamp, and an old-fashioned Morris chair, plus one bookcase, loaded with hardbacks.  Listen–not that I’m a big reader or anything–but I immediately thought, Good on old Carnell Henderson.  I kind of envisioned his coming up here between rentals and plopping down to do something besides watching movies and trolling the internet non-stop.  I opened the closet to discover no hint of a normal American flag, folded into a triangle.  No, there was that stupid Gadsden flag with Don’t Tread on Me and the rattlesnake thing, plus a stars-and-bars flag of the Confederacy.  Beneath the shelf, dangling off of padded hangers, were what appeared to be six genuine confederate uniforms.  I couldn’t tell if they were moth-eaten or bullet-riddled.

I said, “Goddamn.  He’s one of those Civil War reenactors.”

I turned and looked up at the crown molding to see if there was a camera, or if there was one of those innocuous teddy bears stuffed with a camera, maybe perched against a pillow.  I kept the closet door open, walked over to the bookcase, and scanned the titles: The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, by Jefferson Davis; The Private Letters of Jefferson Davis; Stonewall Jackson’s Book of Maxims; The Quotable Robert E. Lee; Jewish Supremicism by David Duke; Mein Kampf in both German and English.  Then there was a whole shelf of books written by Fox newscasters and frequent guests: Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, the dude with hair growing on his forehead. The shelf below it contained books with titles like How Come I’m Paying Taxes So Lazy People Can Live Off My Success? and Send Him Back to Kenya! and How Come They Can Say the N-Word But I Can’t?

I bent down closer to find those last three books self-published by CreateSpace, BookSurge, and iUniverse, and all written by one Carnell Henderson.

*
I said, “I can’t help this guy out,” to Alicia.  She stood at the end of the porch, staring over at the frat boys.  I wondered if she flashed her boobs at these kids while I pored over a library and closet of a probable racist.  I said, “Something’s burning,” and looked over at the pork chops, which at this point could’ve been used for a tailless beaver’s prosthetic device.

Alicia said, “Goddamn.  I forgot.  Where’ve you been?”

If I’d’ve gone into further studies in psychology, I would’ve probably honed in on paranoia, its causes and effects, its importance in regard to evolution.  I told my wife all about what I found upstairs, but ended it with, “You know, it might just be a test.  Maybe Carnell Henderson’s a raging liberal, and he set this whole thing up just to see how I’d react.  Like if he called me over to work on his heat pump in the Fall, he might really want to see if I said something like, ‘Hey, brother, you ought to join my chapter of the KKK,’ or ‘You want to go out on a lynching with me some night?’ This could all be a trap.  Or one of those reality TV shows and we’re being filmed by that group of Hollywood executives across the cove, all of them dressed up like frat boys as a disguise.”

Alicia went and picked up my bourbon bottle and said, “You’re cut off.”

I said, “I’m serious.  Hey, you want me to go get out that chicken?”

My wife walked up and hugged me.  She set the bottle down on a table.  “I never finished my story about Ms. Young,” she said.  “I didn’t get to the important part.”

The guys across the cove put on that Charlie Daniels’ song about being proud to be a rebel and how the South was going to do it again.  They whooped and played air fiddles, which you don’t see that often in polite, sane company.  I thought, Where are we?  I thought, Did I take a wrong turn and end up at the far western arm of this lake, maybe in Alabama or Mississippi?

I yelled out, “Hey, shut up” across the way, knowing that they’d not be able to hear me.
Alicia said, “Ms. Young wanted to know if Dr. McKinney could do something about making her more deaf.  She said she constantly heard her husband screaming.  Inside her head.  She wanted to know if there was a procedure that could stop sounds from ever entering.  Do you see what I mean?”

I looked at my wife and sobered.  I thought, Is Alicia trying to tell me something?  Is she saying that she wants my voice out of her head?  I thought, Is this her way of asking for a divorce?

I was about to say, “Hey, let’s go skinny-dipping and we can sober up a little,” when out of nowhere one of the orange-clad boys came around the corner of the deck.  That meant he would’ve come through the house downstairs, and so on.  I felt sure, later, that I had locked the door, just out of habit.  I’ll give myself this: I didn’t scream like a kid on his first roller coaster.  I saw the boy peripherally, turned my head, and said to Alicia, “Anyway, yeah, I brought along the pistol,” as if I really had one.

The kid spun toward the other house and yelled out, “Turn that down!” but there was no way anyone could’ve heard him.

Alicia said, “Who are you?”

This boy looked to be about twelve to me.  “My daddy called and said you need to make sure and turn the light on below the flag pole.  He said that after you put up those flags, turn on the light so anyone driving by can see them.” He pointed back to his house and said, “We done got our flags up.” Sure enough, a stars-and-bars, plus a Gadsden flag.

I said, “You’re Carnell Henderson’s son?”

He nodded.  “I’m Carnell, too. We own this house and the one across the way.” He pointed with his thumb but didn’t turn around.  He wore one of those baseball caps with the flat brim.  “Me and my brothers got that house for the whole week.  Daddy lets us have it twice a year.  Me and my brothers put up our car keys, you know, so we don’t drive nowhere. Me and Pierpont over there have to run the weedeater at some point before we leave, to pay for it all.”

Alicia–and I’ll give her this–said, “Me won’t drive drunk, either.  Me one time hit a pebble with the weedeater and shattered a window.”

He didn’t seem fazed.  I started laughing.  I said, “Y’all have bad taste in music.  And it’s too loud.”

Carnell, Jr. said, “From what me and the brothers understand, you’re just a regular worker staying here for free. Daddy didn’t say you was some kind of music critic. You want to hear loud?  Wait till you get that stereo working here, and then leave.  Half of us gonna come over here and crank the music at the same time.  We brung us two CDs of everything.”

Then, in case I didn’t quite comprehend what he meant, Carnell Jr. explained how one boy over at the other house and one boy over at this one would go one-two-three over a cell phone, then both hit Play simultaneously.  He said, “We gone blow this lake up, Cuz.  Me and Porter over there just talking about a way to make y’all leave early so we could crank the tunes both sides.”  Again, he pointed over his shoulder without turning.  “I’m talking stereo-stereophonic.”

I said, “Man, go back to your party.  I’ll get the flag up and turn on the lights.”

He nodded sharply once, stared at me too long–as if to scare me, I assumed–then said, “We gone eat steaks the like you ain’t ever seen before, cows raised right there on the college.  I know you can’t do it, but don’t ruin your night wishing you was me.” He said, “Ma’am” to Alicia.

Carnell Jr. went back through the house, down the stairs, out the door.  On the other side of the cove came another one of those Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, the one about a someone named the Breeze.

I poured one more drink, knowing that it would be the last for the evening.  Alicia grabbed my arm, put her index finger up to her lips, and cocked her head.  Through all that music she heard Carnell, Jr. say to one of his fraternity brothers, “About three in the morning?  We gone fuck with them people.”

Someone said to Carnell, Jr., “Don’t he know who your daddy is?”

Someone said, “Steaks ready.”

Of course I couldn’t make out any of these conversations, but my wife, with her audiology training and expertise, could.  She told me one sentence at a time, like a regular United Nations interpreter.
*
Unfortunately it doesn’t matter flying a Confederate flag upside down.  An American flag–you can fly that flag upside down in order to display some kind of distress, I guess like if everyone inside the fort has food poisoning, I don’t know.  I could’ve wiped myself with the flags as some kind of statement, kind of like I did with the last check I wrote out for the student loan corporation after they defaulted me twice for one-day-late checks.

Besides her bat-like sonar, Alicia possessed some mind-reading skills.  We piled the rest of the charcoal on the grill, she led me inside and, whispering, said, “Hoist the flags.  Turn on the light.  You don’t want to appear a troublemaker, so then later on Henderson–or those boys across the way–won’t suspect you.”

I said, “We should just leave.”

“Nope.  Go fix the TV and wi-fi now.  I know that you’re a moral person, Tedrick.”  She meant it, for Alicia rarely used my full name, partly because I asked her to never say it in public. “I know you never think up things like I thought up all the time over at Hub City Audiology.  You know how many near-deaf people treated me badly?  Every other one.

You know how many times I thought up some kind of retaliation?  Every day.  And then there’s Dr. McKinney.  Some people play solitaire.  Or sudoku. They keep a crossword puzzle handy.  Me, I started thinking up ways to retaliate early on. I guess I started right about the time Tony stood up in the canoe and forced me to swim.”

I stood there like an idiot, trying to remember every time Alicia wanted to change the channel to one of those shows about mysterious murders, maybe on Dateline, or City Confidential.  I said, “Let’s just go for a swim and clear our heads.  I’ve been thinking about exercising more anyway.”

My wife told me to fix the entertainment center, again, and to raise those flags for Flag Day.  She said, “I’ll meet you downstairs on the landing.”  She looked at her wristwatch, then took it off.  “Midnight.  That seems appropriate.  One minute after midnight.”

I could’ve rigged Carnell Henderson’s house so that an electrical fire occurred as soon as someone turned on the dryer, or TV, or stereo.  For a racist, though, he’d always treated me fairly.  I guess I might not say the same thing if I were non-Caucasian.  He wouldn’t have hired me in the first place had I been black, Hispanic, or Asian.

I got the TV and stereo connected correctly and turned the volume up on both so that when those college boys came over they’d blow the speakers. I set the place up for wi-fi, but couldn’t think of how to blow out a computer.  Outside, I raised those flags.

I tried not to think, You are such a pussy.

I tried to think, If this makes Alicia happy, then it’s all that matters.

I’m not sure where she found the box of roofing nails. She also held my full plastic bottle of lighter fluid.  I met her below the deck where we’d spent the evening.  Across the way the music blared louder than ever, the windows and doors to that lake house open.  And it started to rain, barely, which kept the boys inside.

“Here’s how this’ll work,” she whispered to me.  “We’re both swimming across the cove. You and me. It’ll prove that our marriage is better than my first one.”  Already I foresaw the plan–scatter roofing nails around the base of the flag pole, douse the rope, light it up.  Frat boys run out barefoot, and so on.  Alicia said, “This will make me happy.  It’ll make me happy in about three ways.” Later on I would talk myself into realizing that she’d lay a trail of fluid from charcoal grill to front porch.

I said, of course, “How’re we going to carry the nails?  How’re we going to keep a lighter or matches dry?”  I thought, We are too old and slightly normal to do these kinds of things–but figured that her third need for happiness fell into the Let’s Be More Spontaneous category, something I rarely achieved, and my wife seemed to attain only when walking off jobs.

I backstroked, with the box of nails on my belly and my Zippo atop the box.  Alicia swam  a one-armed sidestroke, the container of Kingsford held just above water level.  Although we never mentioned it, we both knew not to talk in the water, or on Carnell Henderson’s other property, or while packing up and leaving.  We understood not to even speak while driving home, late at night, on back roads. We required complete quietness. I wanted to say something–slowly transversing the cove–about how the Army celebrated its birthday on June 14, also, and how we kind of acted like Green Berets I’d seen on one of those movies, way back during my first marriage when I never slept well. Back then, I didn’t see myself as an accomplice. Back then, I never considered myself patriotic, either.

Back home, I would install security cameras, and ask my hardware guy about top of the line listening devices.

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